Every family has its favorite special occasion sweets, the ones that take just a little longer to make, but taste all the better for it. For some it might be Grandma’s famous layer cake (and apple pie and bread pudding). For my family, it’s a pretty spiraled sweet bread filled with poppy seeds called potica (pronounced po-TEET-sa).
Those with Slovenian and eastern European backgrounds this treat might be familiar, though it’s called by many names (povtica, makowiec, bejgli or just simply a nut roll). A potica is essentially a sweet bread that’s rolled out thin, filled with any number of ingredients, then wound up jelly roll-style and baked.
Of course, with any heirloom-style recipe, there are many variations. Some potica are baked simply in a log shape. Others are coiled carefully into a bread pan, and another option still is to bake it into a bundt pan, which makes for an especially pretty presentation. And then there’s the fillings! Many traditional potica are made with walnuts and a mixture of honey and raisins or even a combination of nuts and cocoa. There are so so many options out there, but today I’m going to show you how to make my mom’s recipe filled with poppy seeds—a recipe she’s been making for more than 40 years.
Like I said before, like all good and special desserts, potica takes time. But I’m going to break this one down for you step by step. Let’s get started!
How to Make Potica
For the dough, you’ll need:
3½- 4 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup milk
½ cup butter, melted and cooled slightly
½ cup sugar
1 package active dry yeast
2 teaspoons lemon zest
½ teaspoon salt
For the filling, you need:
1 12.5 oz. can poppy seed pastry filling (you can find this by the pie fillings in the baking aisle)
½ cup walnuts, chopped finely
1 tablespoon lemon zest
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 egg white
Yields two small potica (you’ll definitely want two!).
Step 1: Ready your ingredients
To start, melt your butter and allow it to cool slightly. Butter that’s too hot could kill your yeast later on in the process, so I recommend melting it and allowing it to sit while you prepare the rest of your ingredients.
With that cooling, add the sugar, salt, lemon zest and one cup of flour into the bowl of your stand mixer. Give this a quick stir to combine.
Step 2: Proof the yeast
This is the first recipe I ever made with yeast, and let me tell you, it was intimidating the first few times to make sure I got it right. But if you take a few of our Test Kitchen tips on proofing, you’ll be just fine. Now, to proof the yeast, heat up your milk until it’s between 105º and 115ºF. Then add your yeast and a teaspoon of sugar and give it a stir. Allow this to sit for five to ten minutes, until you start seeing bubbles form.
Step 3: Combine the wet and dry
When your yeast is bubbling nicely, add it to your dry ingredients along with the butter and mix it on the lowest speed for two minutes with the paddle attachment. At this point, the dough will look pretty runny, like in the photo above.
Then add in another cup of flour and an egg and beat again on low for two minutes. This should give you a pretty sticky looking dough. That’s when you add in additional 1-1/2 cups of flour and mix. If the dough still feels really sticky to the touch, you can add in a little more (but no more than an extra half cup).
Step 4: Knead
Once you’ve got a good bread dough made, turn it out onto a generously floured surface and knead for five minutes. To knead, use the heel of your hand and push forward stretching out the dough. Fold the dough over itself, turn and repeat. You’ve got this!
After kneading, form the potica dough into a ball and turn into a greased bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let rise until doubled. On a warm day, this takes about 60 minutes, but if you’re mixing this up on a cold Wisconsin afternoon, it can take almost 90 minutes to rise—so don’t worry if you don’t see results right away!
Step 5: Punch it down
After your dough has doubled in size, punch it down (that just means poking it down with your fingers or knuckles until some of the air is released). Then divide the dough into two, and let it rest 15 minutes.
Step 6: Mix up your filling
Since you have 15 minutes to kill while the dough rests, it’s the perfect time to stir up the filling. Start by whipping one egg white with your mixer’s whisk attachment until soft peaks form.
In a separate bowl, mix up your poppy seed filling, lemon zest, cinnamon and chopped walnuts until combined. Once your egg whites are nice and fluffy, fold them into the poppy seed mixture (if you’re new to folding, I’ve got a simple how-to to help you master this technique). This will help lighten the mix up a bit—that poppy seed filling on its own can be pretty sticky and dense.
Step 7: Roll it out
Take one half of your dough and roll it out into a 12″ x 18″ rectangle on a well floured surface. It can be difficult to get an exact rectangle with an elastic bread dough like this, but with some strategic stretching (and maybe a little trimming) you’ll get it.
Step 8: Roll (again)
Once the bread is rolled out into a sheet, spread half your poppy seed and walnut filling onto the dough, leaving about a half inch border of plain dough.
Then you roll the potica again. Working from one of the long ends, roll, roll roll until you have a long log. Pinch the edges and the seam together (you don’t want any of that filling coming out—it’s too good to waste!).
Step 9: A second rise
Take your potica rope and coil it into a lightly greased bundt pan, overlapping the edges slightly. It should fit around a standard size pan just about perfectly. Cover this up with plastic wrap and let rise a second time, this time for 90 minutes, or until doubled.
Step 10: Time to bake
After all that hard work, it’s finally time to bake the potica. Bake on the middle rack of your oven for 30 to 35 minutes at 350ºF. When done, it should be perfectly golden brown.
Allow the potica to cool in the pan for about five minutes before turning out onto a wire rack to cool completely. When it’s cool (or when you can’t bear it any longer!), slice with a bread knife and serve with a dusting of powdered sugar.
Potica will keep for several days in an airtight container or wrapped up in plastic wrap—though, like anything tasty, I’m sure it won’t last too long.
I love this poppy seed potica because it’s a beautiful treat that’s not overly sweet—in fact, I like it best at breakfast alongside a cup of coffee. But I love it even more because this recipe makes me think of so many special occasions when I’ve enjoyed it. This recipe takes a little time to master, but it really makes holidays and family parties just a little more special.